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Injustice 2 hands-on impression: rich content, deep gameplay makes this fighting game a serious esports competitor

Harley Quinn returns in Injustice 2 (Warner Bros.)

When I dove into Injustice 2, I had no illusions of being the next Hometown Hero or playing in ESL Pro League. The game wasn’t even on my radar until my favorite less-than-iconic DC heroes Swamp Thing and Dr. Fate were revealed. But once I saw their playstyles, I was instantly sold on the game.

I did not get a chance to play the Injustice 2 beta. Upon firing up the game, I was pleasantly surprised it worked. Frankly, in this current climate of multiplayer gaming, I’ve become used to the idea that a game will almost always launch with broken online modes that would take days to fix. Sadly, many games – not just fighting games – have done little to allay those fears, with problematic betas and launches.

It’s also refreshing for Injustice 2 to be stocked with features. The game boasts an incredible Story Mode (we’ll get to this later,) new single player modes like The Multiverse, offline and online multiplayer modes, and a progression system to earn plenty of sweet loot to deck out your favorite DC superhero or villain. This is important for Injustice 2’s shelf life if it wants to remain a serious competitor in fighting game esports.

We already know the NetherRealm Studios community was salivating at the prospect of competing in Injustice 2. With the announcement of ESL’s Pro League, Hometown Heroes, and more, the competitive structure for Injustice 2 is set. But longevity seems to be something that has constantly eluded NRS games. The two-year cycle on new releases between Injustice and Mortal Kombat makes it harder for the competitive communities to grow despite each title selling millions of copies.

If we’ve learned one thing in the last year from Street Fighter V, single player elements are a necessity to garner and keep interest in a game. There may be no data that says someone who plays through a Story or Arcade Mode will ever consider playing the game competitively. However, Street Fighter V’s tough launch and lack of content definitively hurt the game’s sales. The fewer people that buy a game means fewer people playing it competitively.

Based on Injustice: Gods Among Us and Mortal Kombat X, Injustice 2’s Story Mode was likely to be pretty good. One of Injustice’s strongpoints in the story is it gets to stray from the DC Universe status quo. Superman still wants to do what’s right, but will do whatever it takes to achieve that. He’s a bigger jerk than Batman. If you dig the alternate universe type of stories, Injustice 2 is for you. Oh and the cutscenes and character animations are without a doubt some of the best ever seen in video games.

But NRS didn’t stop there. Injustice 2 also has a mode called The Multiverse. It functions similarly to Killer Instinct’s Shadow Lords single player mode. Players choose various worlds and duke it out with the game’s cast to complete objectives and earn rewards. If that weren’t enough, you can also set up a team of three characters in the AI Battle Simulator. These characters will automatically defend incoming attacks from other players or you can attack other players AI controlled teams, nabbing gear along the way.

Speaking of gear, Injustice 2 also excels at progression. Earning levels and gear to customize your characters is a welcome addition to fighting games. I don’t expect it in every major fighting game, but earning unlockables while progressing through the game gives more incentive to stick with it.

None of this means anything if the game doesn’t play well in a competitive setting. The online experience in ranked and player matches has been surprisingly top-notch. Injustice 2 makes it easier to learn characters with tutorials that explains their moves and abilities. The trick is applying that in a competitive setting that many people are still navigating. We’ve already seen Mortal Kombat X god Dominique “SonicFox” McLean dominate the zone game with Deadshot.

As of Thursday, SonicFox was a staggering 118-0 online, making him the number one ranked player on the Injustice 2 leaderboards. He also won the first Injustice 2 tournament at Next Level Battle Circuit on Wednesday.

If you’re a fan of zoning, Injustice 2 has it. If you hate zoning, you’re in for a rude welcome. I am arguably the most casual Injustice 2 player and even I’m getting hate messages for zoning noobies with my Dr. Fate. Yes, the game has a roll mechanic that allows players to circumvent the three Ds you’re likely to encounter; Deadshots, Dr. Fates, and Darkseids. But it comes at the cost of super meter. The problem is, you aren’t building meter if you’re stuck blocking while the other player has seemingly endless resources as they hurl projectiles at you repeatedly.

That’s why you want to fool around with roster of 29 characters (Darkseid is only available as DLC) to find out whose playstyle fits you best and if you need more than one character. I like Dr. Fate’s ability to zone, heal, and fight up close if need be. But I still struggle with rushdown heavy characters like Atrocitus, Robin, or Superman.

I picked up Atrocitus because he has some sick special moves like the Blood-Nado, which catches grounded opponents in a tornado and pulls them closer. For now, he seems to be a pretty good rushdown character and he can call in a space cat to shoot projectiles at opponents.

Thankfully, the game is more than just spamming projectiles or being subjected to constant rushdown offense. The pros are already finding impressive tech and combos with a variety of characters. It’s hard not to be impressed by SonicFox’s work with Deadshot and Captain Cold, Christian “Forever King” Quiles’ Darkseid and Batman, or Steven “Coach Steve” Delgado’s Gorilla Grodd. All of who were on display at NLBC.

Injustice 2 isn’t without it’s quirks. I am having fun playing the game but the biggest issue I have is the control layout. I’m a fightstick guy. I’ve never, ever, used a gamepad for a fighting game if I didn’t have to. Injustice 2 forces me to use the PlayStation 4 Dual Shock gamepad. The button layout is too awkward for a fightstick for me. It isn’t the worst experience but I feel it adds to another issue I’m having – one that appears to affect other players also.

The game seems to have an issue with inputs. I’m not sure if it’s not registering them or if it’s the control scheme plus the fact I’m playing with a Dual Shock directional pad. Some moves in the game require a fireball motion and an extra input such as forward, backward, or down to pull off a special move. It can be challenging to execute the right move. What’s worse is for a character like Dr. Fate, you need to be able to go from holding back or forward into a neutral state to start certain combos. The timing can be challenging and often I’ll look like an idiot spamming alternating light and medium attacks as I’m trying to start one of two different combos.

I’m sure I’ll get past it with practice, but this aspect of imprecise gameplay is something I’ve never really liked about NRS games. Getting used to this might be the biggest hurdle for casuals or new players wanting to get competitive. Because it certainly won’t be a lack of support.

Injustice 2 has plenty of content and the character variety and overall gameplay is creative and deep enough to keep people motivated to play. NRS has already confirmed three of nine DLC characters – Starfire, Red Hood, and Mortal Kombat’s Sub-Zero. So we know content will continue at a steady pace, like it did for Mortal Kombat X.

The biggest question is if NRS can stay out of it’s own way and let the game rock. Community feedback is important in regards to balance but my hope is NRS will patch the game less often. Let the players discover the tech and workarounds for the gameplay.

I’d also like to see what would happen if NRS let Injustice 2 breathe beyond the two-year life cycle. As much support as a game can have, the hype around a new game sucks the life out of the old one. Injustice 2 will most certainly succeed as an esport but I’d like to see it succeed long-term alongside other marquee fighting game titles. With developer, publisher, and pro circuit support, I see no reason why it won’t.

Michael Martin loves DC’s Golden Age heroes. Follow his mystical adventures with Dr. Fate on Twitter @Bizarro_Mike.